Harrison has been a scourge against the Ravens for years, perhaps fueled by a long-standing grudge since being cut by the team four years ago.
No play illustrated the Steelers’ superiority against the Ravens’ offensive line during a 23-20 overtime victory Sept. 29 at Heinz Field than a third-quarter play where Harrison busted into the backfield and stripped Flacco of the football on a crushing hit from behind that linebacker LaMarr Woodley returned seven yards for a touchdown.
Flacco was sacked five times in the first meeting with the Steelers (10-3), who travel to Baltimore on Sunday in a high-profile AFC North clash.
Since that night of breakdowns where Harrison had 11 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble, the Ravens (9-4) have improved markedly in pass protection and have allowed just 23 sacks for the season. A young offensive line has matured.
"You can’t say that game changed us, but guys have grown since then because we’ve played a lot more football," offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "Back then, we were still seeking an identity. The more games you play against tough opponents, experience goes along with it. We’ll need all of that this weekend against a tough Pittsburgh team."
A top-ranked Steelers defense led by veteran defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau remains extremely difficult to scheme against. They have 45 sacks for the season, ranking first in the NFL in sacks per pass play.
And Harrison, a former Ravens castoff, ranks third in the NFL with 15 sacks.
The Ravens’ emerging offensive line has had a strong season, too, ranking ninth in the league in sacks allowed and learning how to play with different line combinations because of injuries that include right guard Marshal Yanda being out for the season with torn knee ligaments.
Plus, they have transitioned from the retirement of All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden and jelled as a line since a rough training camp where both starting tackles were sidelined with sprained ankles.
"Fundamentally, we needed to be more sound and do a better job of protecting Joe," center Jason Brown said. "We looked at all those critical errors that we made the first game against them, and we take so much pride in protecting Joe. We can’t let those things happen again. We have grown and progressed a lot."
The question remains, though, whether they have progressed to the point where they can contain Harrison.
Generously listed at 6-foot, the stout 242-pound fifth-year linebacker has 28 tackles, six sacks and four forced fumbles against the Ravens in the past three games of the series.
One year ago, he propelled himself into the Pro Bowl by registering 10 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery in a 38-7 win over Baltimore.
Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce dismissed Harrison’s breakout game at the time, saying: "That will never happen again in his life. He knows that."
During a conference call with Baltimore reporters, Harrison acknowledged that he uses comments like that one as a motivational force.
"Stuff like that motivates me," Harrison said. "I don’t feel like I have anything to prove to anybody but myself. If somebody wants to say I can’t do something, I want to prove them wrong. But as far as wanting to prove something to the Ravens, no, it’s not my point."
Harrison has a history with the Ravens, one that provides him supreme motivation.
Allocated by Baltimore to the since-defunct NFL Europe’s Rhein Fire for nearly two months in the spring of 2004, he was with the team for just 10 days of offseason workouts before being cut. An ornery Harrison wasn’t a good chemistry fit with the Ravens during that short tenure.
"I was mad that they made me play in Europe and then had the audacity to tell me not to practice the first week," Harrison said in a 2004 interview. "And then they had me learn only one defense the next week. I knew what was going on."
Harrison downplayed the revenge angle this week, noting that the Ravens simply needed a tight end at that time.
"The tight end they picked up was Daniel Wilcox," Harrison said. "We played in NFL Europe together, and he’s still there. They obviously needed a tight end. I don’t point fault at anybody. That’s just part of the game, just like the Steelers cut me three times before the Ravens. And here I am now."
Only two players have more sacks than Harrison: the Miami Dolphins’ Joey Porter (16 1/2) and the Dallas Cowboys’ DeMarcus Ware (16).
No one has forced more fumbles than Harrison, who has seven.
"You’ve got to account for him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s got a knack. He’s got a combination of explosiveness, leverage, speed.
"He’s fundamentally a very good player. But the way he’s built, he just leverages pass blockers really well and I think he applies technique and power in a way that just makes him tough to block."
Harrison is just a half-sack away from surpassing Mike Merriweather’s franchise record for sacks in a single season.
It will take a big game by the Ravens to keep him from penetrating the backfield at will.
Anderson said that a major key to blocking Harrison is bending your knees against the stocky pass rusher and staying low. And he compared Harrison favorably to famously testy former Steelers star linebacker Greg Lloyd.
"His body type and being as powerful he is, he’s not your typical size linebacker, but his muscle mass and the way he plays reminds me of the old Greg Lloyd," Anderson said. "His height challenges a tackle to play with really good leverage.
"You’ve got to get low and move with him. He has leverage just through his natural size, so you have to bend and play that power-speed game he brings to the table."
Harrison lines up on both sides, but will likely be paired opposite left tackle Jared Gaither. Gaither is dealing with a painful shoulder injury, but has had a good season.
The Ravens are expected to give Gaither some chip-blocking assistance to account for Harrison’s presence.
"He’s been pretty disruptive, but we feel like we have the guys to match up against him," Flacco said. "I’m sure he’ll make his plays during the game, but we’re going to go out there and we’re going to attack these guys."
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron admitted that the Ravens must play much better this time against the Steelers’ defense to remain competitive.
The Ravens fumbled four times against the Steelers in the first meeting, losing one.
"Our blocking unit, we’re going to have to do a better job in some areas obviously than we did the last time we played them," Cameron said. "We’ve got to take care of the football better, especially when we’re backed up. How much better are we? We’re better. How much better, I don’t really know at this point."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.